Spreading like ink across blotting paper

This image is used by Leigh Fermor to describe the speed and flow of Slavs into a region.  Although I played the game of Grandmother's Steps as a child, I had never heard it called by this name before and had to look it up.  I remember it as being called something...

Heat as strong as a curse

Leigh Fermor finds many ways to convey the unforgiving heat and light of the sun in the Mani, so strong as to feel like a curse more than a blessing. 'The sun beat down like a curse.' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese,...

The thought of space

Such a subtle and evocative idea, likening a faint, indefinable and glorious feeling not to space, but to the thought of it. 'Aloof and august, He floats in an atmosphere which is still and spellbound and if a presiding mood can be identified, it is one of faint,...

Language like a wipe of garlic

What a way to convey the invigorating presence of foreign words in a language.  Even if imperfectly grafted, they add something of value, providing the same 'rank zest' that a wipe of garlic brings to a salad bowl. 'There are, through this random incrustation of...

A minstrel of defeat

An extraordinary idea: a minstrel of defeat, and even more so when used to describe an unpleasant smell of cooking.  Later, Hoban uses the smell of cooking to describe the pervasiveness of voices carried on the air.  He also refers to smell as a carrier of memory. 'In...

Eyes like oracle stones

Goats, along with sheep, have a peculiar stare, sometimes vague and batty, sometimes sinister and glassy.  This reminds me of a description of sheep's eyes by Vasily Grossman, as being like glass grapes. 'Goats stared with eyes like oracle stones.' Source: Russell...

Someday the history of metaphor will be written and we shall at last grasp all the truths and misconceptions in which this intensely speculative subject abounds.  

Source: Jorge Luis Borges, On Writing, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010, p. 45

Metaphors and similes are an imaginative galaxy which greater minds than mine have explored. That doesn’t stop me gathering dazzling and original examples to enrich the common stock and enliven human exchange, expanding the choice of vigorous and beautiful ways to sharpen how we think, read, write and speak.

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Vomited out like a Jonah

The first of several descriptions of this boy being ejected from childhood innocence and security by his father's decision to abandon home in search of himself, or some such.  This reference to Jonah being spewed out of the whale is memorable. 'He felt as if the...

Smell as a carrier of memory

For better or worse, few things can as quickly transport you to another place, time, or experience as a smell.  These olfactory reminders are often so strong and instantaneous that they can't be avoided.  Ideally, they trigger happy memories, even nostalgia-tinged,...

Vanishing childhood

One of the great failings of the adult world is the collateral damage inflicted on children, with trauma yanking them out of childhood before they're ready.  This vivid image conveys the suddenness of Boaz-Jachin's ejection from childhood, later underlined by the...

Lamps like eyes

A blinding opaqueness conveys the idea of these globular lamps.  Later on, Hoban likens other street lamps to 'luminous fruits bursting with knowledge'. 'The globes of the lamps were like great blind eyes.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and...

Lumps of knowledge

In Hoban's book, a boy has adulthood thrust upon him after being abandoned by his father.  I loved this astonishing description of unavoidable knowledge prematurely imposed on his young mind: lumpy potatoes.  See also the description of how he was brutally ejected...

The taste of colour

This is one of two metaphors I found in Hoban's book which mix two senses.  Here visual overload leaves a sugary taste in the eye, while elsewhere he refers to sounds like the smell of old cooking. 'Too much colour, leaving a taste of marzipan in the eye.' Source:...

Dancing light, rippling reflections

Having occasionally lain in bed practically hypnotised by the dappling and dancing of light bouncing from water up to ceiling, I liked Hoban's reference to flashes of mystic writing, like a watery, visual morse. '... dancing light reflected from the water rippled on...

Womanhood slung over your shoulder

A surprising description which conveys a certain insouciance and strident, even defiant, confidence. 'She seemed to carry her womanhood the way men on the docks carried baling hooks on one shoulder – shiny, pointed, sharp.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of...

A well of terror

In this convincing tale of a urban lions, Hoban manages to capture the grip of fear, both as a serpent of panic and a bottomless well of terror. 'The snaky black and brilliant panic that had surged up in him when he had closed his eyes in the presence of the lion had...

Of sleepy lighthouses

Dwarfed by daylight, the lighthouse is a nocturnal creature like an owl, and so might similarly nod off to sleep when it has nothing to do. '... its lighthouse now standing sleepy like an owl in strong sunlight.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and...

Voices like the smell of cooking

You can hear the insistent but indefinite sound of speech penetrating the flimsy walls of a badly built tenement like an ineradicable accumulation of cooking smells.  This isn't the only example of Hoban making a metaphor for one sense out of another; elsewhere he...

Lamps as luminous fruits

I would love to find this street where the lamps are like luminous fruits bursting with knowledge.  You would only have to walk under their light to learn something. 'The street lamps seemed luminous fruits, bursting with knowledge.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of...

The aha moment with a twist

What a meaty way to convey a moment of sudden comprehension or insight, as when you have had a piece of meat jammed between two teeth, which has finally found freedom.  Russell Hoban's novel is one of the most imaginative I've read, both in its story and its use of...

The call of duty

This magnificent story, which features lions in unexpected places, describes the look of the kingly creature when glimpsed at dawn, his stern expression likened to the call of duty pulling imperatively and silently. ' ... head uplifted in the first light of day, stern...

As inert as …

Two fine similes to describe inertness, of which I lean to the first as being more euphonic and original. '… inert as an aardvark or a giant ant-eater…' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle...

Glowing like a comet

Celebrity success à la 16th century - I only knew of Sidney as a poet and courtier but wasn't aware of his star appeal on the international aristocratic circuit, appropriately conveyed as a glittering comet trail. 'Sir Philip Sidney’s brief passage across the...

Detonations of flight

An original way to capture the sudden soaring of a flock of birds.  A few weeks ago, a flock of a few hundred descended on the garden, half strutting about the lawn yanking elastic and reluctant worms out of the ground, the other half congregating in the apple tree,...

Stillness meets alertness

Having seen nearly neon-bright lizards in Taiwan, I liked this use of electricity to capture the vividness of their speedy green movements, and the perfect description of latency held in check in their 'alert petrifaction'. 'Green lizards, freshly woken from their...

Joy as flaring kingfisher

A marvelous metaphor this, the piercing joy of seeing a darting kingfisher.  May you experience many such kingfisher-flaring moments. 'That night and the night after and the night after, wherever she went, always in her own little circle of intimates, she brought a...

The fermentation of fear

A great metaphor for the way fear can bubble and multiply, bringing to the surface appalling images. What's the antidote?  To drink another product of fermentation? 'Fear worked like yeast in my thoughts, and the fermentation brought to the surface, in great gobs of...

Like stale cigar smoke

I liked this image of guilt as a waft of stale and strong-smelling smoke that can't be dispelled with a wave of the hand. '... but guilt hung about him like stale cigar smoke...' Source: Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain...

A pool of embarrassment

Curious idea that the person causing the pool of uneasiness is oblivious to it and just floats as dumb and easy as a log. 'Even on that convivial evening I could feel my host emanating little magnetic waves of social uneasiness, creating, rather, a pool of general...

The shape of things to come

Leigh Fermor's walk across Europe in the early 1930s captures many things that would be swept away in the following decade by the high tide of Nazism.  His journey took him through Germany and he chronicles the first menacing signals of what was to come, in the cocky,...

As voluminous as the Danube

I like that Leigh Fermor draws his simile from the place where the lady lives. 'Her soliloquy flowed on as voluminously as the Danube under her window.' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts (London: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 176 Photo credit:...

A lyre-bird among carrion-crows

Well, if you're going to outshine your peers, let it be by such a striking margin.  Here Leigh Fermor is referring to the paintings of Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538). 'But he outshines his fellow-Danubians like a lyre-bird among carrion-crows.' Source: Patrick...

As blue and as vague as …

A beautiful image, blueness and vagueness likened to 'unmapped lakes', and these, referring to eyes, being misted over with the (over) consumption of plum-brandy.  And those 'tundra-blank' faces! 'Swamp-and-conifer men they looked, with faces tundra-blank and eyes as...

Weaving a stanza

Thoreau likens a fisherman's weaving of a creel to creating a poem about the spring. He shows great respect for skills and care in material things and processes. 'He was meditating a small poem in his way.  It was equal to a successful stanza whose subject was...

Five for the price of one

Thoreau packs in a rich deck of similes and metaphors in this short description of the shrub oak.  For the image, I looked for something that conveyed 'clean as the atmosphere', but I also like 'hardy as virtue' and the idea of being as 'natural and sound as a...

As moderate as …

A measured, precise, unfussy speaker, this farmer.  I also liked the idea of his not melting the snow where he treads, as if he is himself made of this clean, cold, moderate element. 'The farmer spoke to me, I can swear, clean, cold, moderate as the snow. He does not...

As insensible as …

Of course, we can't know (yet) how insensible a fungus is, but until we learn otherwise, what a memorable way to convey a loss of wonder.  Apologies to all wondering fungi. And may wonder never become extinct in you, whether or not you resemble fungus. 'Will wonder...

Like the lowing of a cow

Nature's hoarse summer voice?  Wind shuffling leaves and crickets rubbing hands together?  I like the metaphor, but nevertheless can't quite capture what it is. 'Nature has found her hoarse summer voice again, like the lowing of a cow let out to pasture.'  20 May 1856...

Like opening tombs

Thoreau voices strong opinions and they can be refreshingly blunt and funny, though it isn't always clear that he means them to be humorous.  It seems he didn't draw too much inspiration from New England journals. 'Most New England biographies and journals – John...

A voice like …

I don't think I've ever heard such a voice, unless it's one or two smokers I know after a bad winter bronchitis. '... a voice like a nut-meg grater.'   4 May 1856 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion Searls (ed.), preface by John R. Stilgoe (New...

Contorted as …

Never thought of caterpillars as contorted, but I like the simile.  Hope you do too, and the image I used. As contorted a caterpillar as I could find and what a lurid green! '... contorted like caterpillars.'  22 April 1855 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal...

Ebbs and flows of the soul

A journal as a beach gathering shells, seaweed and pearls washed up by the soul in the course of a day. 'Let the daily tide leave some deposit on these pages, as it leaves sand and shells on the shore. So much increase of terra firma. This may be a calendar of the...

All parts are one

A lovely comment on interconnectedness.  I had fun choosing the image and hope you like its gentle irreverence. 'All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair.  How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!' ...

Like sunshine over a field

I wish you countless such waves. 'A wave of happiness flows over us like sunshine over a field.'  7 August 1840 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion Searls (ed.), preface by John R. Stilgoe (New York: New York Review Books, 2009), p. 11 Photo...

Waking like a bullet

While I don't relish bullets striking things, I like the occasional quickness of a sleep-satiated body waking up, alert to the day. 'When you have been deprived of your usual quantity of sleep for several nights, you sleep much more soundly for it, and wake up...

Floating on your buoyant prejudices

As I read the abridged version of Thoreau's journals encompassing only one tenth of the original 7,000 pages, I can't make any comprehensive comments about his writing.  But in extracting favourite quotations and metaphors  from the chunky 700 page version I read, it...

Thoughts as shells

The thoughts of poets likened to two types of shell, those that come from the depths and those that are washed up on shore and so exposed to the elements.  Thoreau has numerous comments on the nature of poets and poetry - I will be citing a number, even where I'm not...

Towing a sinking ship with a canoe

A clear portrayal of something being unequal to the task, Thoreau uses this maritime metaphor to describe words which strike him as inauthentic, being only half justified or improved by some modifier ('church' made true by calling it 'true church' - he doesn't...

Nature like an athlete

How wonderful to portray nature beefing herself up to wrestle with winter, stripping off all superfluity such as leaves, the better to grapple with cold and frost. 'Nature now, like an athlete, begins to strip herself in earnest for her contest with her great...

Of detonating ideas

Does that ever happen to you?  That an idea detonates over your head, shooting up like a colossal cartoon exclamation mark?  A vivid and unusual way to convey moments of piercing breakthrough. 'But it was in the transept of the cathedral that the notion suddenly took...

As slender as…

An unusual simile for slenderness, applied to an elliptical island in a river. '... an island as slender as a weaver’s shuttle divided the current amidstream.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to...

A winter warmer

Nothing like it, climbing under a meringue-like eiderdown on a freezing winter night, and sleeping off all fatigue. '... an eiderdown like a giant meringue.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to...

As purposefully as pikes

'Cutters of the river police smacking from wave to wave as purposefully and fast as pikes.  Once we gave way to a liner that towered out of the water like a festive block of flats.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from...

The astonishing sound of Magyar

Having just returned from Budapest, I was happy to rediscover this galloping description of the way it can sound to a foreign - or at least English - ear, with its agreeing vowels and harmonies.  And he's captured the rhythm perfectly - that 'dactylic canter' that...

Books lost and gained

In Leigh Fermor's enchanting walk across Europe, he find islands of great hospitality where he can rest and recuperate from intermittently roughing it.  Remote aristocratic homes which he intimates were often destroyed in the maelstrom of the war that was to engulf...

The loss of a journal

How many notebooks, journals or letters have been swept away by circumstance, carrying the minutiae of memory with them? Leigh Fermor used his to reconstruct his travels in his books and he clearly never got over this loss. Elsewhere he mentions a journal having been...

An unfolding plan

How do you convey the speed and completeness of a fast unfolding plan?  I enjoyed this image of a Japanese paper flower in a glass of water unfurling its petals with ease and precision. May all your plans unfold so. 'A plan unfolded with the speed and the completeness...

A curse in its Sunday best

May you be spared any such presence and any such curse.  Great phrasing though. 'His presence was both funereal and incandescent, like a curse dressed in its Sunday best.'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind, trans. Lucia Graves (London: Phoenix,...

Skeleton fists and black commas

This perfectly captures the gnarliness of old vines and I like the black commas contrasting against the snow-white backdrop. 'Pruned to the bone, the dark vine-shoots stuck out of the snow in rows of skeleton fists which shrank to quincunxes of black commas along the...

Truer than …

Reading the book in Barcelona, this phrase resonated as I'd discovered the simple snack you can order alongside your drink or tapas - tomato spread on white bread, pan con tomate.  Sounds boring but it's just delicious. '... what I say is truer than a slice of bread...

As bright as …

Fermín is one of the most eccentric and believable characters in The Shadow of the Wind.  He has a rollicking command of language, making his arguments compelling as much for wit as substance. In an atmosphere charged with propaganda, 'as bright as a political mural'...

As natural as…

If someone said 'as natural as...' what would pop into your mind?  'Tap water' seems unusual, but when we are being encouraged to drink tap water rather than commercially bottled water, it can seem the more 'natural' option. '... as natural as tap water.'  ...

As white as …

Probably the liveliest simile for whiteness I've come across, though I have highlighted others, less earthy. 'Daniel, you're as white as a nun's buttock.  Are you all right?'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind, trans. Lucia Graves (London:...

As weighty as …

A refreshing change from references to lead and other heavy materials, I liked this silence as weighty as the Swiss franc. 'Tomás and I were left alone, enveloped in a silence as weighty as the Swiss franc.'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind,...

Killing flies in midair

Memorably describing the oratory of one of several colourful, eloquent characters in Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, a book I read in Barcelona, the city where it takes place.  It was a pleasure to map the mystery's unfolding in real streets, while savouring some...

Dawn as liquid copper

I can see that bright and rosy metallic light glancing along a morning street, making it hard to discern more than the passing shadows of people. '... we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Mónica...

An accent thick enough to…

Bernarda is a wonderful housekeeper to the protagonists and when they employ a tramp to work in their bookshop, he falls in love with her. The courtship is part of the beauty of the book.  I like the notion of something being 'thick enough to spread on toast'....

Another context, another grin

Having recently found a seashore's surf likened to a grin, I was struck by the keyboard version, like a piano with a personality such as you might see in a cartoon. 'The piano keyboard displayed its endless grin.'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the...

Spring cleaning your burrow

If you read Sea Room, you will fall in love with puffins, utterly endearing, quirky birds.  Here Nicolson describes their appearance after the annual return to their burrows.  They never change burrow and the spring cleaning is done by both parties in the lifelong...

Waiting for the pub to open

Puffins are curious and unafraid of humans, and very sociable among themselves. I loved this image of their crowding around your boat, like drinkers hovering at the pub door. 'You can take your boat in among them.  They scatter to start with, but then slowly seep back...

Puffin as scientist

The way Nicolson describes puffins makes you wonder if their name comes from 'puffed up' or 'puffed out', as there's always a sense of their parading about inspecting things, and just a touch of pomposity.  Here, their examination of a rope reminds him of a biologist...

The proprieties of the puffin

Sociable and lovable, puffins have elaborate rituals, like chaps gathered around a fireplace to smoke postprandial cigars in 1908. 'Ludicrous and lovable puffins!  Their sociability is as stiff and predictable as an evening in an Edwardian London.  Gestures of...

Skeins of geese sewn into the air

Two ways to describe the habitual, seasonal flight paths of geese: a skein woven into the air like stitches, which in turn form creases in the palm of the world's hand. 'From a satellite you could see them, long skeins of the goose bodies, sewn like stitches into the...

Eggs like a Jackson Pollock

Are puffin eggs like a Jackson Pollock, or did Jackson Pollock find some inspiration in the designs of eggs? We recently spent five hours walking around the Art Institute in Chicago, and couldn't help wondering if Picasso hadn't taken some inspiration and ideas from...

Of storms and carwashes

A carwash captures the all-sloshing, soaking, random, bucketing wetness of a strong storm. 'An Atlantic storm was slashing around us like a carwash...' Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p. 204

The smiling surf

You can see the white froth of the waves on a rough northern shore, looking like a white grin along a curved beach. '... a grin of surf lined the northern shores.' Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p....

As seamless and faceless as…

What could be more seamless and faceless than a U-boat surfacing and submerging, grey and impersonal?  Apologies to all naval buffs for choosing a photo of a submarine that isn't a U-boat in the historic sense. 'A Minke whale slid its long black back above the surface...

Glittering as though sugared

Ah yes, that's how it looks when you have those dancing sparkles on the sea's surface.  I like the extension to a 'frost of beneficence', like the frosting on a birthday cake. 'The water lay glittering around the boat as though sugared, a frost of beneficence across...

Lichen like cracked lacquer

I imagine here the wetted orange lichen that grows flat on rocky surfaces, like tiny star-bursts of gold. 'The lichen glows like cracked lacquer on the cliffs.'   Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p. 131 Photo...

Blue as deep as…

It seems some newborns have blue eyes even if later they take on other hues.  Colour is one of the most slippery elements to describe, so I like this reference and had fun choosing the photo. 'A blueness as deep as a new-born eye.'   Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea...

As wriggly as…

Such a friendly word for a sinuous path, and so the likening to a piece of thread fallen on a carpet carries home. 'The path is as wriggly as a thread fallen on carpet.'   Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p....

Intimate with hugeness

A wonderful way to describe bobbing on the sea close to the sheer cliffs of the islands, and edging towards still, alien, unembraceable bodies.  And that perfect phrase, 'intimate with hugeness'. 'Afloat on the ink of the green sea, it is like being in the elephant...

As subtle as scent

A simple simile.  While some scents are not subtle, my husband's endeavours to teach me the mysteries of wine aromas shows me how subtle they can be.  Even when not entirely elusive, they are hard to identify.  This scented simile is used to describe a delicate but...

Puffins on a dance floor

By the time you finish reading Sea Room, you may or may not have fallen in love with the Shiant Isles, but you will surely have fallen in love with their principal inhabitants, a quarter of a million puffins.  Curious, loveable, sociable creatures.  How appropriate to...

The influence of place

Few writers I know address the meaning of place better than Adam Nicolson, particularly in terms of rootedness or attraction to specific places and landscapes.   In Sea Room he explores his own passionate attachment to three outwardly barren, uninhabited and even...

As known to me as…

Two in one here, both unfamiliar ways of describing something familiar.  Wood knots, if you live with them, do become known to you - I am getting to know those on our ceiling.  The feeling of your teeth to your tongue is so familiar that I had never even thought about...

As pale as…

This simile pleases me because I have an attachment to the colours used in eighteenth century interiors, and the kind of names given to those hues by paint companies and others.  Here I imagine a dove-grey-white shade, with perhaps a touch of duck-egg blue. '… a sky...

On wobbling and inflating rhetoric

An unusual way to describe rhetoric, but apt given that the islands Nicolson is writing about could be home to seals.  You can imagine the elephant seal pontificating in front of a board of Commissioners. 'His rhetoric inflating and wobbling like the proboscis of an...

The friskiness of a cow on a sunny day

While I couldn't find a good picture of either a leaping labourer or a friskily jumping cow on a sunny day, I wanted to share this quirky likeness.  May you leap and jump with joy, in any case. 'Pleasant to see the labourer on Sunday jump with the friskiness of a cow...

Dancing leaves

They do spin and pirouette in a gusty autumn breeze, and I liked this reference to a rag blown in the wind. 'One only leaf upon the top of a tree - the sole remaining leaf - danced round and round like a rag blown in the wind.'  7 March 1798 Source: Dorothy...

Bristled serpents of ivy

A perfect description of those thick cords of ivy rope that wrap themselves around trees, eventually suffocating them. 'The ivy twisting round the oaks like bristled serpents.'  22nd January 1798 Source: Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, ed. and...

Love and thought

This beautiful, measured poem by Michael Drayton (1563-1631), poet laureate, was written the night before he died to the woman he had loved since childhood but with whom marriage had been socially impossible. It has two metaphors: in the first, love is like seed cast...

Spinning your way home

Here E.B. White (1899-1985) writes a poem in a letter to Katherine, depicting a spider's spinning a thread-ladder to find its way back, as he will find his way back to her. Source: E.B. White, letter to Katherine from King Edward Hotel, Toronto Photo credit: Erwan...

A hive of healing

A beautiful metaphor of a hive of bees working inside the heart to transmute ancient heartaches to the gold of honey. Surely a device to think of if you are trying to free yourself of lingering sorrows. It may be the illusion of a dream but its effects could prove...

As distinct as…

I like this geometric juxtaposition, though I might have made the distinction sharper: as distinct as circle and square?  As distinct as line and circle? 'Distinct as polygon and square.' Source: Christopher Logue, War Music: An account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of...

The icy scabs of the earth

A depiction of the north and south ice caps, as 'icy scabs at either end of the earth'.  And then having them wince in their sleep as Achilles' distant scream reaches them from its middling latitude.   'He lifts his face to 90; draws his breath; And from the...

Quiet in quiet rooms

A simple movement, settling back against a rope, evoking entire lives spent leaning into comfort and quiet, disengaging from din and adventure. 'Elsewhere late afternoon goes lazily enough. And yawning as he leaves his tent To sigh and settle back against a rope (As...

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